Pack City Hall with more than 150 angry citizens and any governing body would get a bit anxious. But at Wednesday night's budget hearing, the Pembroke Pines city commissioners appeared to be auditioning for Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? And it wasn't going well.
First, they faced the small problem of calculating exactly how a proposed tax hike would impact homeowners in the Broward suburb. Granted, your average citizen can't be expected to understand the intricacies of millage rates, but you'd think our elected officials might have a clue. Alas, no.
Commissioner Iris Siple wanted to second a motion to increase taxes, but first she needed to pick a millage rate and find out how it translated to tax bills. How much more would the average homeowner have to pay?
She looked to City Manager Charles Dodge for guidance. He deferred to the city's internal auditor, who huddled over his computer with the city attorney. Long minutes passed in silence. Audience members squirmed, shifted in their seats. The meeting had already dragged on for nearly two-and-half hours. Still, no clear answer emerged.
Finally, Alan Eichenbaum, an attorney for the employees union, stood up and approached the podium in exasperation. The tax increase amounted to $6, he announced. "It's simple! I did it on the calculator on my phone," he said.
As the audience cheered, the commissioners announced a brief recess, presumably to hang their heads in shame. Commissioner Jack McCluskey went over and started talking intently to Dodge, who disappeared into a back room.
When the city officials emerged once more, they offered no response to Eichenbaum's math. But Jim Cherof, who was sitting in for City Attorney Sam Goren, had a more alarming announcement. Up until that moment, commissioners had assumed that they could set a low tax rate now and raise it before the final vote was taken on September 23. But Cherof said that was not legal -- they had to start with a high rate and go down. Which meant all the previous calculations were useless.
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"I feel foolish," a frustrated Siple announced. And she was not alone.
"Have they ever done this before?" asked the man standing next to me.
In fact, city commissioners set tax rates and balance budgets every year. It's a basic function of government. Yet by the time they approved a tentative tax hike last night, the Pines commissioners still hadn't publicly explained how it would impact residents' tax bills. (Not surprisingly, the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel had different numbers in their reports on the meeting today.)
Welcome to budget hell, Pembroke Pines.